By Lara Goodrich Walla Walla Union-Bulletin
WALLA WALLA — A city planning meeting in rural Afghanistan is under way, and a small group of men sit on a cement floor socializing and drinking tea.
“Over there, you have to be social before you get down to business,” says Carl Knaak, a project officer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “It was something to get used to, but eventually I came to really enjoy that part of the business.”
The informal and social city planning meetings were just one of the cultural adjustments Knaak became accustomed to during his 13 months as a Corps project officer in northern Afghanistan.
Knaak has worked for the Corps for 15 years. Before that, he served 13 years in the Navy. Knaak and his family have lived in Walla Walla for nine years, but Knaak’s job as a Corps project officer continues to take him to the far reaches of the globe.
From October 2007 through November 2008, Knaak was stationed as a project officer for the Corps in Bamyan, a province about 100 miles northwest of Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital city.
Nestled in the rugged terrain of the Hindu Kush mountain range, the largely rural province’s population endures harsh living conditions. The dominant ethnic group in Bamyan is Hazara, descendents of Genghis Khan and people from Mongolia.
Because of their ethnicity and their Buddhist traditions and heritage, the Hazaras have endured years of persecution at the hands of the Taliban; many of their buildings, including schools, hospitals and temples, were destroyed.
During his time in Afghanistan, Knaak worked closely with the New Zealand Defense Forces, the Singapore Defense Forces, USAID and Commanders Emergency Response Program stationed in the province.
Each of the organizations has different missions that range from building bridges and roads to promoting improved agricultural techniques and training midwives.
The coalition of organizations was looking for a technical expert in engineering as well as a project manager; Knaak and three other construction representatives from the Corps were sent to join the project.
In order to reconstruct crumbled or nonexistent infrastructure and address the province’s needs, Knaak and his team held city planning meetings with local men, brought food aid to isolated populations, and constructed schools, roads, clinics and bridges.
Knaak’s favorite task during his time in Bamyan was conducting training sessions for Afghan workers on improved construction techniques.
“Teaching is important, and training was a big part of my job there,” he said. “I was teaching basic construction and the business of construction to local workers.”
His workshops were advertised to local construction companies, whose employers enrolled their employees in his courses. During the classes, Knaak incorporated Western construction knowledge into traditional building techniques of the area.
He also hosted business training sessions, during which he would take local businessman through the process of writing business proposals. He noticed a significant change in the quality of the businessmen’s work after his sessions.
“The proposals were more successful following the training,” he said.
The working conditions in Afghanistan did not make life easy. The cold weather, the lack of roads, destroyed buildings, the absence of adequate health care facilities and the scarcity of potable water are a few of the challenges that Knaak and his team dealt with on a daily basis.
The time that he spent in Afghanistan has since altered the way Knaak thinks about his daily circumstances.
“Experience changes perspective,” he said. “I can’t complain about my 8- by 10-foot office when I would work on a piece of wood in a hallway (in Bamyan).”
Knaak will return to Bamyan province later this year, and he hopes to see the conclusion of projects and the further rehabilitation of the area.
“It’s a hard duty. It takes someone with experience, and a self-starter. In that situation, you have to be able to do whatever you’ve got to do.”
It is difficult being away from family for a long period of time, and Knaak hopes that his next deployment will not be as long as his last.
But he looks forward to reconnecting with the team and the people there, completing projects and pushing for progress.